Kamal Haasan and Shah Rukh Khan are not only two of my favourite actors, but also 'heroes' – to whatever extent that word means, both on-screen and off it. Haasan and Khan came to work together in the 2000 film 'Hey Ram'.
The film, written and directed by Kamal Haasan, also saw him act in the lead role along with Shah Rukh Khan. The script is rooted in history, but its themes are contemporary and universal at the same time.
The three hour and 45-minute-long film is set during one of the bloodiest and controversial times of modern Indian subcontinent - offering a ride through an inescapable episode of its history, politics and the impact of those, both geopolitically and socioeconomically.
The semi-fictional film runs parallel to major events that changed the region forever through the plague of communalism - something that not only remains somewhat unchanged even after so many years, but has resuscitated with a new veneer.
The period film begins at present day with Saket Ram Iyengar (played by Kamal Hassan), a near-nonagenarian South Indian Brahmin who is on his deathbed. The film is narrated through a young Saket Ram's life in the 1940s.
The protagonist is an apolitical and easy-going archaeologist. He was born in Tamil Nadu, and is married to a Bengali girl in Kolkata; and for a living, he excavates historical landscapes in Karachi.
Ram - as Saket Ram Iyengar is nicknamed, has a Muslim friend Amjad Ali Khan - a Pathan (played by Shah Rukh Khan), who is a fellow archaeologist and Manohar Lalwani (played by Saurabh Shukla) - a wealthy Sindhi industrialist based out of Karachi. Ram and Khan work together under their boss, Mortimer Wheeler, in Mohenjo-daro. Amjad's wife Nafisa binds Rakhi to Ram's hand every year as her 'Rakhi Brother'.
The year is 1946, and the excavation is halted due to fears of communal riots. The tale follows Ram, and how that year's riots in Kolkata changed him, and the subcontinent.
Colours of communalism: From Karachi to Kolkata
After the excavation work is halted, Ram goes to Kolkata and is swept into the madness. Aparna Ram (Rani Mukerji), Ram's simple Bengali wife, is a school teacher. They live in the city in the midst of riots and chaos over the issue of the formation of Pakistan and the call by Mohammad Ali Jinnah for 'direct action'.
While returning back from the market, Ram saves an innocent Sikh girl from the hands of a Muslim gang. When he returns to his house, he finds a group of Muslims entering his house - leading the group is his wife's tailor, Altaf.
They incapacitate Ram and tie him to a table when he tries to stop them. One of the fiends stays back to rape Ram while the rest of the group proceeds to brutally rape and murder Aparna.
The round-faced woman laid dead, with her throat cut, clothes torn in a pool of her own blood - with the verisimilitude of the broken idols as seen in many of the news following this year's Puja and the communal vandalism.
Ram is able to escape but is unable to cope with the tragic loss of his wife. He kills the Muslims who raped and killed his wife, and a few more in a fit of rage.
After a series of events and the anniversary of the bloody riots, during a hunting trip with Sriram Abhyankar (portrayed by Atul Kulkarni) and a dethroned Maharaja, Ram reunites with Manohar Lalwani by chance.
The once wealthy industrialist lost everything when his shops were closed down, fields burned, wife raped and killed, children lost to a diarrhea outbreak in the camps and stampedes; and was now selling Papad to earn his livelihood. The two old friends bond anew over their similar loss.
Lalwani's misery makes Ram realise that he has still not gotten over Aparna's murder. Under Abhyankar's influence, Ram unwittingly becomes a part of their militant organisation that plots to kill Gandhi - for what they perceive to be his treachery towards Hindu dominated India.
Ram's second, and pregnant wife, Mythili (played by Vasundhara Das) becomes worried as her husband grows more distant.
However, Ram has made up his mind and leaves home for Varanasi, where he goes through a purification ritual. Then, he heads for Delhi.
In Chandni Chowk, Delhi, Ram is reunited with Amjad, who takes him to a soda factory. It is revealed that many Muslims civilians, including Amjad's wife Nafisa and their children, are hiding there out of fear of being attacked by Hindus during curfew.
When it is discovered that Ram came there looking for a gun (that he previously lost), the Muslims suspicious that he might be out to kill them, attack him. A fight ensues that triggers a series of violent events in the area.
While trying to escape both Hindu and Muslim mobs, Amjad finds out that Ram is in Delhi to assassinate Gandhi and he tries to convince his friend to not do it. He reveals that his father was murdered by a Hindu mob.
Amjad is fatally injured. Before dying, Amjad lies to the police when asked about Ram's fake identity (part of Ram's Gandhi assassination plan) and says all he knows is his brother Ram who despite everything, saved his life. He then dies holding Ram's hand.
After another series of events, Gandhi requests to see Ram to invite him on his long walk to Pakistan after finding out he helped save innocent Muslims. Ram ultimately decides against assassinating the leader and attempts to confess the truth to him in order to beg for forgiveness. However, it is too late as Gandhi is eventually killed by fundamentalist, Nathuram Godse.
Back in present time, Ram is being taken to the hospital in an ambulance and told of bomb blasts in the city due to Hindu-Muslim communal riots – over the demolition of Babri Masjid. Police force a very elderly Ram and those in the ambulance to be taken into an underground shelter for their security.
As they are lowered in, the 89-year-old Ram asks, "Innuma?" (Even now?). He passed away there.
A timeless message against perennial evil
Characters in the long film act as fitting literalism of metaphors and allegories. Visuals over dialogues conveyed the rapidly evolving emotions of the protagonist - who is torn between vengeance and sanity, and those around him; and also captured the romantic and physical closeness of humans and also the emotional alienation and friction between individuals.
The film acts as a transparent lens that tries to offer a nonpartisan glimpse into both the 'past' and 'present' by refusing to employ black and white characterisation. Right from Mahatma Gandhi to Govardhan (a pimp by profession who helps Ram as a guide in Delhi), nobody is projected as an all good person and everybody has their own selfish reasons in their life.
Hey Ram makes a heartfelt appeal to stop the atrocities carried out in the name of God. It is not only the call of the victims of a certain religious group towards God for help, it is also man's cry to himself, to find the reason for his spiritual disappearance and the quest to restore humanity and peace within him and outside him.
With the news of vandalism in Hindu temples, mandaps, houses and other properties across the country - all under the guise of rage over alleged desecration of the Holy Quran in a Puja mandap in Cumilla, one can perhaps draw parallel lines with the permanent damage that Saket Ram's soul suffered - regardless of their creed.
Some scars never heal, and follow through generations; the tragedy and tales of terribleness are inherited. Given the recent incidents of communal disharmony, this film is more relevant today than it ever was.